Sunday 8 December 2019

Funeral showed parties can work together, but it will be a different Assembly we see

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald huddle at Derry City Cemetery after Martin McGuinness’s funeral. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald huddle at Derry City Cemetery after Martin McGuinness’s funeral. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Behind the words spoken at Martin McGuinness's graveside, cogs were setting wheels in motion. Signals were sent during that oration delivered by Gerry Adams, both to Sinn Féin supporters and republican dissidents.

No doubt there were also pointers embedded within it for the DUP, with whom negotiations are entering a key phase, and for the British government. That tranche of coded messages explains why the tone of his oration had more in common with a Sinn Féin ard fheis than the Prayers for the Dead you might expect beside an open grave.

Much of what was seen and heard at the pageantry-rich funeral in Derry on Thursday formed a strand of the negotiations, from the DUP presence in the church to the language used in the graveside set-piece.

The latter was about Mr Adams bidding farewell to a friend - but much else besides. Was he preparing the ground for a return to power-sharing in Stormont? Alerting followers to the realpolitik inevitability that all of their grievances won't be set to rights, nor the wish list granted in its entirety? His speech could be interpreted as the Sinn Féin president saying his party is ready to take the Assembly out of mothballs - for now.

It could also be read as him urging dissidents to choose politics and engagement, when he spoke about mobilising to make gains, presumably in relation to Sinn Féin's ultimate goal of a united Ireland. In which context, his insistence that Unionist traditions must be respected shows recognition that their consent is important. However, republicans struggle to accept that unionists won't necessarily embrace a united Ireland simply because Britain removes itself from the equation.

The tone of Mr Adams's speech could not compare with the eloquence and humour displayed by Bill Clinton - master of the common touch - in St Columba's Long Tower Church. Few can match the former US president when he holds the floor. But Mr Adams was addressing a different audience. As ever, the game he plays is a long one.

So what next, now that the wreaths are laid, and presidents and taoisigh past and present have gone home? Politics, that's what. It's back to the negotiating table to restore the Assembly. Brexit demands it. How else are calls for special status to be made credibly?

There are reasons to be hopeful about Northern Ireland. Take the absence of paramilitary trappings from the funeral service and burial: no gun salutes, no insignia on the coffin apart from a tricolour flag, no men in berets and dark glasses. In terms of republican iconography, this approached minimalism. Had the graveside speeches been left for another day, the step-change would have been complete.

But Mr Adams had business to conduct. He was engaged in a political event as well as a funeral. The deadline to restore Stormont looms at 4pm on Monday, which looks a tight deadline. Still, the art of politics involves not just meeting deadlines but shunting them along for extra negotiating time.

Occasionally, the City Cemetery speechifying sounded like a classic H-Blocks' era rally, with both Mr Adams and Michelle O'Neill invoking the shade of hunger striker Bobby Sands. At heart, though, their orations were not about the past but the present dilemma for the North: where next?

Promising signs of something approaching reconciliation could be glimpsed. Granted, there was political expediency in the DUP presence - the party couldn't have stayed away, if it envisages a return to power-sharing. All the same, it was encouraging to note the presence of Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson, both former first ministers, along with former senior DUP minister Simon Hamilton.

Mrs Foster must have wondered if she was doing the right thing up to the moment when she entered the church. Unlike Mike Nesbitt of the UUP, she was slow to confirm her attendance. Understandably, the DUP contingent needed guarantees about an absence of paramilitary trappings before they made their way to Derry. It took an act of faith on their part to accept those reassurances.

Once there, Mrs Foster was gracious and dignified. Consider how she stood with her head bowed behind a coffin with a tricolour draped over it, and the symbolism underpinning that strip of cloth. Not everyone in her community will accept her reasons.

The spontaneous applause of the congregation at her arrival, Mr Clinton's charm in praising her attendance during his eulogy (also a clever act of positive reinforcement on his part) - those touches may be of fleeting gratification when confronted by disappointed members of her electorate. So let us take this opportunity to acknowledge that Mrs Foster has shown leadership.

She has been the butt of justifiable criticism in recent months, but a simple act of showing respect in Derry ought to stand her in good stead if she is returned as first minister. She has demonstrated her ability to compromise. Handshakes at the service between Mr Adams and Mr Robinson, and Mrs Foster and Mrs O'Neill, were also encouraging. A handshake is no guarantee of agreements being struck, but it offers the possibility.

As for the church ceremony, it was an exercise in cross-community reconciliation, with highlights including well-judged homilies from Methodist and Presbyterian ministers - the latter, Rev David Latimer, put smiles on faces with his cúpla focal. (If it was good enough for Queen Elizabeth, etc.)

If Sinn Féin is readying itself for a return to power-sharing - and all the messages from church and graveyard were in harmony that a deal must be struck - there are indicators that a revived Stormont will operate on a different basis. Power-sharing won't have a dominant partner any longer.

So, expect to see concessions on marriage equality, an Irish language act and legacy issues such as the release of blocked funds for inquests into controversial killings by the British army. Will there be renewed calls for a truth and reconciliation forum? The British government has always opposed it on national security grounds, but one is necessary in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

Finally, let's cast our minds back to those images as Derry came to a standstill laying Mr McGuinness to rest. It looked exactly like any other city, no sign of the militarised Maiden City of bygone years. And there was PSNI chief constable George Hamilton, attending not to monitor the funeral but as a mark of courtesy.

So much has changed for the better. But progress needs to be ongoing.

Irish Independent

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